Failures of Racial Disparities Methods

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Racial-percentage measures have achieved something akin to a taken-for-granted status. They are expected elements of a well-specified model of policy choice, and are often treated as a sufficient basis for capturing racial effects. Racial percentage measures are easy to obtain and, having been used many times before, offer advantages of comparability and replication across studies. Thus, a researcher who sets out to “include race” in a study of policy variation seems well-advised to reach for the tried and true measure of racial-group composition.

There is a significant risk in this dynamic for a field that is producing important insights into policy dynamics and racial politics. As researchers follow well-worn grooves, the traditional relationship between theorizing and measure selection can be turned on its head. Rather than digging into theoretical texts (or theorizing anew) to identify appropriate measures, researchers may simply adopt the prevailing measures and rely on conventional theoretical frames to interpret results. Finding that the minority percentage has a significant effect, the researcher may turn to a ready stock of narratives, one of which is sure to fit the observed relationship. As the minority percent rises, perhaps whites experience greater threat and respond with policies that are less beneficent and more focused on control; or perhaps positive interracial contact becomes more likely and whites respond with policies that are more beneficent and less focused on control; or perhaps white responses become less decisive as minority numbers pass some threshold needed for meaningful minority representation and policy influence.

From Soss, J., & Bruch, S.K. (2008, August). Marginalization Matters: Rethinking Race in the Analysis of State Politics and Policy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA.

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Failures of Racial Disparities Methods

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